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Organic Grain Production

for a Sustainable Future


Steven Mirsky
Agro-ecologist
USDA-ARS
Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab
Beltsville Agricultural Research Center
Beltsville, MD

Factors driving focus on soil health


The Dust Bowl Days
(1930's-40s)
Soil Conservation
Nurseries are formed
to grow plants for
windbreaks and soil
conservation

modified 2
from John Engler

Soil management

Environmental costs of weed


No-till
Dust Bowl
control
grain
producti
on

Organic grain production

Soil
conservation
focus

Soil
Health
Soil
building/regenerativ
e focus

Soil Health
The capacity of a soil to
function, within
ecosystem and land use
boundaries, to:
- sustain productivity,
- maintain environmental
quality,
- promote plant and
animal health

oran and Parkin 1994

Organic Grain
Farming
Crop rotations
Cover crops
Animal
manures
Primary and
secondary
cultivation

The Farming Systems Project


Plots established 1996
4 replicated blocks
NO TILL and CHISEL TILL Corn-rye-Soybean-Wheat/Soybean
ORGANIC, 2-YEAR

Corn-rye-Soybean-vetch

ORGANIC, 3-YEAR

Corn-rye-Soybean-Wheat/vetch

ORGANIC, 6-YEAR

Corn-rye-Soybean-Wheat/Alfalfa

The Farming Systems Project


Organic Matter (%)

3
2.5
2
1.5
1
0.5
0

a
b

The Farming Systems Project


Active Carbon (ppm)
600
500

CT

NT

ab

Org3

Org6

400
300
200
100
0
Org2

16
14
12
10
8
6
4
2
0

Potentially Mineralizable
Nitrogen (ug N/g soil)
a

ab

b
c

CT

NT

Org2

Org3

Org6

The Farming Systems Project

Spargo et al. 2011

seed m-2

Seedbank of major weed


Mean,1997-2002
species

Teasdale et al. 2004

Longer, more
phenologically
diverse organic
rotations reduce
the weed
seedbank

Field crop production energy requirements


(Farming Systems Project; ARS-BARC)

Hoffman et al. in preparation

Organic feed corn shortages


throughout the US

(Dimitri and Oberholtzer 2009; 2012 Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin: 2012 Status
Report)

What are the barriers to increasing organic grain


production?
1. Existing organic grain farmers (scale up)
Labor intensive weed management
2. New farmer adoption
Soil conservation minded and/or risk averse (climate
sensitive)
Concerns with returning to intensive tillage-based
systems

Corn production
year
- Crop rotation planning
- Cover crops
- Plowing in the spring
- Disking 2X; additional disking?
- Manure application
- Cultimulching
- Planting
- Rotary hoeing (3-5X)
- Interrow cultivation (2-4X)
- Irrigate?
- Harvest

Weed management
1. Healthy, fast-growing cash crop
2. Crop rotation
3. RTK technology/auto-steer for
cultivation
4. Precise fertility management
5. Cover crop-based reduced tillage
systems
6. Weed seed bank management

N and P Management in Organic


Systems?

Multi-functional approach:
-legume cover crops + organic amendments
-apply amendments at N vs. P removal rates
-soil reserves as buffer

Legumes
When compared to:
1. Mineral fertilizers
Slower release rates
Lower energy use
Renewable resource
2. Animal Waste
No new P
No transport costs
Low volatility

FSP Phosphorous levels


Phosphorou
s (ppm)

CT

NT

Org2

Org3

Org6

mes are critical for successful nutrient manage

Manure subsurface band applicator

In Summary

The future of organic grain production


is bright

Conventional ag. draws from organic


practices
(multi-tactic weed management and
cover crops)